December 12, 2013

The Icarus Agenda

About two weeks ago and not long after the next generation of broad-based economic reforms were announced in China, Beijing’s Ministry of Transport said that it had submitted a proposal to make development of that country’s shipping industry a ‘national strategy.’  Some Indians will probably say, in response, that their Ministry of Shipping launched the ‘Maritime Agenda 2020’- a 450 page comprehensive document for the growth of the maritime sector- almost three years ago, so what the hell is special about the Chinese statement?

The difference is that history tells us that the Chinese- if their MoT’s proposal is approved- will probably deliver on the ground with their proposed plan. India, on the other hand, will probably fail to do so with its Maritime Agenda 2020, an apprehension that the three years since its promulgation have done little to dispel.

On the other side of the world, the United States is struggling with aging infrastructure on its water transport routes and is finalising a new waterways bill to, amongst other things, find resources to overhaul its 12,000 mile long inland waterways, many with expansive (and expensive to maintain) lock systems.  Critics say that the legislation has been delayed; the U.S. traditionally passes water resource legislation every two years. That level of review is unthinkable in India, where a key file may not move to the adjacent clerk’s in-box in that much time. Unless, of course.

History reassures us that the US system will probably deliver, too.

The Indian Maritime Agenda 2020 had declared grandiose intentions, including an investment of Rupees 1,650,000 million in the sector. Our ports to be on par with the best in the world. Increased Indian tonnage and share of Indian ships in the country’s trade to rise significantly, with State owned ship owner SCI spearheading new acquisitions. Promotion of coastal shipping and inland waterways. Indian global shipbuilding market share to jump to 5 per cent. A new dredging policy. Shifting of transhipment of Indian containers from foreign ports to Indian ports. Establishment of an Indian P&I club and freight exchange. Collaboration of the Indian Maritime University (IMU) with top global academic institutions in the maritime sector. New legislation and a slew of amendments to existing legislation. And an increase of Indian seafarer market share to 9 per cent from the then estimated seven, and this one by 2015. This is almost next year.

The stunning lack of progress after the official publication of highfalutin policy documents is nothing new in India, so nobody will be really surprised that the progress made since the proclamation of the Maritime Agenda has been piddling, at best. Worse, nobody seems to care than 2020 is just six years away.

Not that absolutely nothing has been done, but, overall, all of it is too little and too late. Baby steps have been taken in, for example, a national waterway that will transport coal to Farakka from Sandheads in the Bay of Bengal. Some port investments have been made that make sense (amongst many that don’t). Tinkering with the Cabotage law is on once again to try to support Indian tonnage. But nothing that I have seen points to any concerted action that has more than a snowflake’s chance in hell in meeting even a third of the Maritime Agenda’s aims.

All in all, the Agenda is failing on most counts. In contrast to its aims and claims, the idea of Vallarpadam- that was to take on Colombo for Indian transhipment cargo- has failed thus far; there are few takers for the Indian terminal. Then, there is little to cheer the languishing Indian shipbuilding sector. Also, though some private ports are doing well, how many Indian ports are really world class?

There is no chance that India is going to dramatically increase global seafarer market share in the next two years; in fact, a  decrease seems more likely in future.

SCI is in no position to spearhead anything; it is, in fact, fighting to keep its Navratna status. It would have been fighting to survive bankruptcy if it was a private entity.

Our dredging is in disarray- and let’s not even talk about the Sethusamudaram project, please, which is an abject lesson in how a fortune can be flushed away in India for all the wrong reasons.

And the IMU is mired in allegations of corruption, infighting and worse.

Critics will say that Indians are good planners but poor executors. I don’t buy that argument; we seem to execute well enough when we are outside the country. Others may point to the lack of democracy in China as a reason why policy can be backed up by action easily there; I don’t buy that either, because they are enough democracies out there that implement, more or less, what they plan.

I think, instead, that we fail because we are particular victims of corruption and its incidental fallout. Particular, because although corruption exists across the globe, it is special in India simply because it is overarching and, like God, it is everywhere. Indian corruption is particular since it paralyses every plan and promotes  third rate execution because competence is invariably slaughtered at the altar of greed. Only inefficiency and helplessness survive, with their convenient and ready excuses for failure. We declare pompous agenda’s with the foreknowledge of how deep the rot is and the inner surety that we are going to fail.

Declarations of intent must have teeth behind them. Clean teeth. Navigable waterways are a country’s geographic resource and shipping its lifeblood. India fails to realise that shipping is vital to its economic well-being. Jingoists will claim that the Indian Ocean is the only ocean named after a country; that it hosts 100,000 transiting ships annually. That two-thirds of the world’s oil, one-third of all bulk cargo and half the world’s container traffic pass through these waters.

All that is fine, but that false feel good sermon is not a panacea. It is not even a placebo, actually, because it does not even give the impression that it is working.

To accomplish anything- anything at all- one has to execute. If one cannot do that, or if a nation’s ability to execute is crippled by a complete absence of a moral or ethical compass, then what happens is that any national agenda is just another overblown statement that disintegrates when it collides with reality. 


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